Some call it the “carbon pollution loophole:” the absurdity that while the federal Clean Air Act limits the amount of mercury, arsenic, sulfur, and other pollutants that power plants can spew into the atmosphere, the US government has never regulated power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. This loophole is the reason electric power plants, which burn huge amounts of coal as part of their day-to-day operations, are the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. It’s why fossil fuel-fired plants have been allowed to belch millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air, even as the public has come to blame this type of pollution for rising sea levels, increasingly crazy weather patterns, and worsening public health risks — because no one told them to stop.
That loophole may finally be closed, if a plan put forth Monday by President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency makes it through the gauntlet of controversy and potential litigation that’s sure to come over the next year. The proposal, part of Obama’s Climate Action Plan that attempts to fight global warming on several fronts, aims to cut power plant emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“That’s like cancelling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said. “And if you add up what we’ll avoid between now and 2030 — it’s more than double the carbon pollution from every power plant in America in 2012.”
The EPA says the proposed rule — which they’re calling the Clean Power Plan — has public health and environmental benefits worth an estimated $55 to $93 billion dollars, and will help reduce asthma and other health issues by improving air quality, create jobs in the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries, and lower electric costs over time. Plus, it will reduce soot and smog by 25 percent within the same time frame.
The plan affords great flexibility to states, which can choose how to meet the standards; the EPA will set different emissions goals for each state, depending on how much pollution they emit and how much electricity they produce. To meet those targets, states can increase efficiency at existing plants, shift to low- or zero-emissions power sources, work with other states to cap and trade emission allowances, encourage energy efficiency on the demand-side, or any combination of those strategies.
Maine, which currently emits about 437 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity, must get down to an interim goal of 393 pounds per megawatt hour during the 10 years between 2020-2029 and a final goal of 378 pounds of CO2 per mwh by 2030 — a 13.5 percent reduction over 16 years. According to a state-by-state analysis at Vox, other states are facing much larger necessary reductions; Massachusetts must cut its emissions by 37.7 percent to meet the EPA’s goal, for example. North Dakota faces the smallest reduction at 10 percent, while Washington needs to reduce its emissions by almost 72 percent to meet the EPA’s standard.
“So why do different states have such different targets?” Vox writer Brad Plumer asks. “The EPA tried to take into account the state’s current energy situation when setting these goals. Some states are already on pace to reduce their emissions quickly...Washington is already on pace to phase out a massive coal plant in 2020 anyway. So a big cut is relatively easier for Washington to achieve than it is for, say, North Dakota.”